Statehouse roundup

Bid to pull testing funds livens up Senate budget debate

The Senate Wednesday rejected a bid by five Republicans to pull $16.8 million in testing funds from the 2015-16 state budget bill.

“What we are hearing from parents is there is too much testing,” argued Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. “They want out of this product called PARCC. … This one amendment does something very simple, it defunds PARCC.”

The proposed amendment was offered during the hours-long debate on Senate Bill 15-234, the so-called “long bill” that will set state spending in the upcoming budget year.

Long lists of amendments are proposed to the budget bill every year, mostly by minority party members who know their motions will fail but who want to make political points. The GOP controls the Senate by a one-vote margin this year, and the testing amendment was proposed by five Republicans, all of whom to sit on the Senate Education Committee.

Democratic senators opposed the amendment – along with some key Republicans.

“This is not the place to do it,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver and a member of the Joint Budget Committee. “This is something current law requires the state to pay for.”

Later in the debate, JBC chair Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs agreed, saying, “I don’t think this is the right vehicle either. … We try not to make substantive law in the long bill.”

Lambert was referring to the longstanding legislative practice of using the budget bill only to set amounts of funding for programs that are currently required by state law, not to change those programs. Separate sections of state law require the current testing system, and the language of the amendment wouldn’t have changed those. The amendment also didn’t refer specifically to PARCC tests.

It’s also longstanding legislative practice for JBC members of both parties to oppose changes to the long bill, regardless of which party proposes those amendments.

The 40 minutes of debate ended with an initial standing vote. Several Republicans voted no, including Lambert, fellow JBC member Sen. Kevin Grantham of Cañon City and Majority Leader Mark Scheffel of Parker.

The budget bill was debated on what’s called “second reading,” or preliminary consideration. A final Senate vote on the budget will be taken Thursday.

Testing critics will have plenty of other opportunities for debate. The House Education Committee will consider a major testing bill next Monday, and Senate Education will have a testing marathon featuring five bills on April 9. (See the Testing Bill Tracker at the bottom of this story for information and links on all 2015 testing bills.)

House panel advances rural aid bill

Some House Education Committee members questioned the $10 million cost of a new bill intended to help small rural school districts, but the committee passed the measure 10-1 Wednesday after listening to testimony and chewing on it for more than 90 minutes.

House Bill 15-1321 would exempt rural districts with fewer than 1,000 students from certain state requirements related to parent involvement, accountability committee membership, financial reporting, and evaluations, and also provide $10 million in 2015-16 for per-pupil distribution to those districts. (Get more details in this Chalkbeat story and this legislative staff summary.)

2015-Education-Bill-Tracker-plain

Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, was the biggest skeptic. “I have some concerns about the $10 million. … So many other schools” have financial needs as well, she said. Fields was the only no vote.

Rural administrators and lobbyists from groups including the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Succeeds and the Colorado League of Charter Schools testified for the measure.

The rural aid bill joins a long line of proposed spending bills awaiting action in the House Appropriations Committee. Each house of the legislature has been allocated only $5 million by the JBC for new or expanded spending this year. But the bills on the appropriations calendar total hundreds of millions of dollars, including more than a dozen education-related measures running to about $280 million.

House Education’s talkative session on rural aid meant it ran out of time to vote on House Bill 15-1322, which would commission a $165,000 study of the data reporting requirements the state imposes on school districts. (See a bill summary here.)

Some committee members complained about the cost; others wondered if it was necessary. When amendments surfaced just before the committee was due to be kicked out of the hearing room for another meeting, chair Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, pulled the bill off the table.

More education bills introduced in House

The session’s May 6 adjournment clock is counting down, but that doesn’t mean the legislative leadership is stopping members from introducing new bills. Here are education-related measures that popped up in the House on Wednesday.

House Bill 15-1326 – This bill would prohibit state colleges from discriminating against applicants who have high school diplomas from districts that have lost state accreditation. The sponsors are Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo. Both represent school districts that could soon face state intervention for low performance. The bill has no Senate sponsors.

House Bill 15-1328 – The measure would require youth sports organizations to conduct criminal background checks on staff members and some volunteers. This is a House retread of Senate Bill 15-048, which was killed in the Senate.

Testing Bill Tracker

Click the bill number in the left column for more a more detailed description, sponsors and other information. Click the link in the Fiscal Notes column at the right for a bill’s description and an estimate of potential state costs.

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

money matters

Why Gov. Hickenlooper wants to give some Colorado charter schools $5.5 million

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If Mike Epke, principal of the New America School in Thornton, had a larger budget, he would like to spend it on technical training and intervention programs for his students.

He would buy more grade-level and age appropriate books for the empty shelves in his school’s library, and provide his teachers with a modest raise. If he could really make the dollars stretch, he’d hire additional teacher aides to help students learning with disabilities.

“These are students who have not had all the opportunities other students have had,” the charter school principal said, describing his 400 high school students who are mostly Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

A $5.5 million budget request from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could help Epke make some of those dreams a reality.

The seven-figure ask is part of Hickenlooper’s proposed budget that he sent to lawmakers earlier this month. The money would go to state-approved charter schools in an effort to close a funding gap lawmakers tried to eliminate in a landmark funding bill passed in the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session.

Funding charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate independently of the traditional school district system, is a contentious issue in many states. Charter schools in Colorado have enjoyed bipartisan support, but the 2017 debate over how to fund them hit on thorny issues, especially the state’s constitutional guarantee of local control of schools.

The legislation that ultimately passed, which had broad bipartisan support but faced fierce opposition from some Democrats, requires school districts by 2020 to equitably share voter-approved local tax increases — known as mill levy overrides — with the charter schools they approved.

The bill also created a system for lawmakers to send more money to charter schools, like New America in Thornton, that are governed by the state, rather than a local school district.

Unlike district-approved charter schools, which were always eligible to receive a portion of local tax increases, state-approved charter schools haven’t had access to that revenue.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, or CSI, the state organization that approves charter schools, said it is critical lawmakers complete the work they started in 2017 by boosting funding to her schools.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” she said. “To not have that equity for our schools, it’s extremely concerning.”

CSI authorizes 41 different charters schools that enrolled nearly 17,000 students last school year. That’s comparable to both the Brighton and Thompson school districts, according to state data.

Hickenlooper’s request would be a small step toward closing the $18 million gap between state-approved charter schools and what district-run charter schools are projected to receive starting in 2020, CSI officials said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper believes that working to make school funding as fair as possible is important,” Jacque Montgomery, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is the next step in making sure that is true for more children.”

If lawmakers approve Hickenlooper’s request, the New Legacy charter school in Aurora would receive about $580 more per student in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Douglas, the school’s principal, said she would put that money toward teacher salaries and training — especially in the school’s early education center.

“As a small school, serving students with complex needs, it is challenging and we need to tap into every dollar we can,” she said.

The three-year old school in Aurora serves both teen mothers and their toddlers. Before the school opened, Douglas sent in her charter application to both the Aurora school board and CSI. Both approved her charter application, but because at the time her school would receive greater access to federal dollars through CSI, Douglas asked to be governed by the state.

Douglas said that her preferred solution to close the funding gap would be to see local tax increases follow students, regardless of school type or governance model. Until that day, she said, lawmakers must “ensure that schools have the resources they need to take care of the students in our state and give them the education they deserve.”

For Hickenlooper’s request to become a reality, it must first be approved by the legislature’s budget committee and then by both chambers. In a hyper-partisan election year, nothing is a guarantee, but it appears Hickenlooper’s proposal won’t face the same fight that the 2017 charter school funding bill encountered.

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped lead the charge against the charter school funding bill, said he was likely going to support Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“You almost have to do it to be in alignment with the law,” Melton said. “I don’t think with a good conscious I could vote against it. I’m probably going to hold my nose and vote yes.”